Richard Tsoi was attending a university studying mathematics in Hong Kong when pro-democracy protests erupted in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. A student leader at the time, Tsoi organized rallies in the then-British colony - destined to return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 - to support protesters in neighboring mainland China.
“We wanted Hong Kong to be democratic and of course we wanted to support the students in the mainland, … but none of us could’ve guessed that on June 3 and 4, tanks would go into the city and open fire on the people. It was shocking,” Tsoi said, recalling that he and other students couldn’t sleep the night of June 3rd as they watched live coverage of the bloody crackdown on local TV.
“I felt very sad and angry … we couldn’t accept the government opening fire on unarmed civilians and students. After experiencing that night, I felt that I wanted to do what I could to promote China’s democracy,” Tsoi said.
Little did he know then that he would later become vice chairman of a Hong Kong pro-democracy alliance that, for the past 34 years, has organized an annual candlelight vigil - the only public commemoration allowed in China and the largest in the world, to remember victims of the crackdown, which killed hundreds and possibly 2,000 people, according to estimates.
On the eve of the 34th anniversary, it has become a sad reality to Tsoi and other activists that the vigil, which had attracted tens of thousands of people to Hong Kong’s Victoria Park each year, may not be held anymore.
“At this time, not only is Hong Kong no longer capable of supporting the Chinese democracy movement, they’re also no longer capable of commemorating it. The key organizers of the Victoria Park vigils are all in prison. They’re under systematic attack,” said Wu’er Kaixi, a former student leader in the Tiananmen protests. “Hong Kong has lost its freedom. Hong Kong has fallen.”
The last major vigil was held in 2019. That year, Hong Kong saw widespread and sometimes violent protests against a later-rescinded extradition bill that would’ve sent suspects to the mainland for trial. In response, Beijing passed a national security law the following year, outlawing secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism.
Analyst Tso Chen-dong said Beijing tolerated the annual vigil for years, but the 2019 protests changed everything.
“The 2019 protests are an unfortunate incident. It led to the breakdown in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) trust in Hong Kong, so it’s stepping up direct control of Hong Kong,” said Tso, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. “It’s not just about this activity anymore, to the CCP it needs to tighten control and prevent a political strength seen as hostile to the CCP from growing in Hong Kong.”
In 2020-2021, the government banned the vigils, citing COVID-19 restrictions. Thousands of people defied the ban and 26 were arrested. In 2021, police sealed off the park.
That same year, organizers of the vigil, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, disbanded after it was investigated for working on behalf of foreign groups — an accusation it denied. Three of its leaders are in jail facing trial on charges of inciting subversion.
Last year, no one applied to hold the vigil while social distancing restrictions were still in place.
This year is the first since Hong Kong has fully reopened from COVID-19 lockdowns, but again no group has applied — a reflection of a much-changed political environment.
Since the security law was passed, around 250 activists, opposition politicians, hardcore protesters, newspaper publishers and journalists, have been arrested, with 150 charged and 100 convicted, according to the website ChinaFile.
A new museum dedicated to teaching people about the crackdown was forced to close two years ago, after a national security investigation. Books with sensitive content, including about the Tiananmen crackdown, have been pulled from public library shelves. Statues commemorating the Tiananmen movement have been removed from universities.
Instead of the vigil, the park’s open space will be taken up Sunday, June 4, by pro-Beijing groups, which will hold a carnival showcasing food from different parts of China, media reports said.
According to the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s police are planning to deploy as many as 5,000 officers to guard against potential trouble and unauthorized gatherings this weekend.
It cited sources saying security would be ramped up around Victoria Park, with officers setting up roadblocks and conducting stop-and-search checks.
The government has threatened to take "resolute action" against people who use the “special occasion” to endanger national security, but has not explicitly said whether mourning the crackdown was illegal. Freedom of assembly and speech are technically still allowed under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, but those rights are widely seen as disappearing.
At least eight people were apprehended by the police as they sought to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Causeway Bay on Saturday, according to local media. They reported police confirmed four arrests for alleged sedition and public disorder.
Those taken away included two activists who put red tape over their mouth to signify attempts to silence dissent. One of them was seen wearing a t-shirt that was printed with a candle and the Chinese word for “truth.” Two performance artists were also detained, according to reports. One of them repeatedly shouted “don’t forget June 4” and “Hongkongers don’t be afraid” as he was escorted to a police car, the Hong Kong Free Press cited footage showing.
Despite planned commemorations elsewhere, including in Taiwan and New York, where the shutdown museum reopened this week, Wu’er Kaixi said Hong Kong’s annual vigils held significance not just because of their size, but because the fate of the people of Hong Kong is tied to that of the mainland.
“Being a survivor of June 4th, I’m extremely grateful to Hong Kong for giving a new significance to the June 4th massacre. The commemorations can take place in other places and have always been taking place in other places, … (but) no one can replace Hong Kong,” he said.
Tsoi, who served eight months in prison after defying the government’s ban and holding the vigil in 2020, remains hopeful.
“Hong Kong definitely has changed. … The situation now doesn’t make people happy of course, but I don’t think it’s hopeless,” Tsoi said. “We have to be practical and continue going forward. The method can’t be like before, but I believe we’ll find a way.”
Some shopkeepers are giving out free LED candles while independent bookstores are making books on Tiananmen available. Tsoi said he hasn’t decided what he will do.
“Looking back, I feel proud we’ve managed to organize the vigil for 30 years, I hope everyone can carry on the legacy,” Tsoi said. “As to how much space we have to do so, it takes Hong Kong people to continue to test to see.”